Deny Christ to save others’ lives?

Q. What does the Bible say? I’m told by my captors that if I don’t deny Christ, five Christians will be put to death. What will happen to my relationship with Jesus if I deny Him under those circumstances?

The first thing the Bible would say to you in this situation is that you shouldn’t trust or believe your captors when they say that they will spare these five other Christians (presumably your fellow hostages) if you deny Christ. Your captors are clearly opposed to Jesus and his message, and that means that they do not have a commitment to the truth or to keeping their word. (Jesus says, for example, in the gospel of John that those who oppose him “do not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in them.”) History and experience certainly confirm that oppressors who make promises to those under their power in order to get them to do things don’t keep those promises.

So the Bible would warn you, first of all, that if you deny Christ under these circumstances, it’s quite likely that you would be denying him for nothing. You wouldn’t be saving anybody’s life. Your captors are opposed to Christ and his followers, and there’s nothing to keep them from executing your fellow hostages anyway, after getting the propaganda triumph of your denial. They have no incentive to do otherwise.

On the other hand, if you don’t deny Christ, your captors have no incentive to execute your fellow hostages because of this. Their goal is clearly not just to capture and kill the six of you, but also to try to discredit Jesus by showing that his followers are not loyal. Once you show that you are loyal, their goal cannot be furthered by killing your fellow hostages—unless they were planning to do so anyway—because this would just show what an incredibly high price you put on loyalty to Jesus. It would defeat their purposes. They are more likely to try to come up with some other incentive, threat, or promise that might get you to deny Christ.

And even if the other hostages are executed, you haven’t killed them; your captors have. They can’t transfer their moral responsibility for that onto you.

This apparent ethical dilemma is much like the “situational ethics” problems that were suggested a while back. In one of them, a serial killer rings your doorbell and asks if your son is at home. He is; do you tell the truth? (In more general terms, is it justified to do a small wrong for the sake of a great right, such as saving a life?) One fallacy of these dilemmas is that they assume things that would never happen. Serial killers don’t ring the doorbell. A second fallacy is that you only have two options: in this case, to answer the question directly by either lying or telling the truth. You have more options than that. If this really happened, I’d recommend telling the killer, “Stay right there,” locking the door, and calling 911.

However, even though it’s entirely unrealistic, let’s assume that you really could save the lives of those other five hostages by denying Christ. Let’s also assume that by denying Christ, for all you know, you would lose your soul—for the sake of this exercise, you can’t count on being forgiven if you repent afterwards. So the question really is, “Would you be willing to risk losing your soul to save another person’s life?”

Suppose you did. Suppose you went ahead and denied Christ, even at that risk, in order to save the lives of your fellow hostages. Then you really wouldn’t be denying Christ. You’d be imitating him. Only Christ-like sacrificial love would lead a person to do something like that. Jesus himself went to the cross and, at least as many understand it, was separated from fellowship with God so that he could bear the sins of the world. You might be speaking a denial outwardly, but with your action of self-sacrifice you would be expressing ultimate loyalty to the way that Christ taught.

Still, your denial would bring dishonor to Christ on earth. And you would be doing wrong by saying one thing when you really believed and were practicing something else. And if your course really hadn’t been the wisest one, that would be disappointing to Christ as well. So what would happen to your relationship with him?

What does the Bible say? It tells us that Jesus forgave a disciple, Peter, who denied him not to save others but to save himself, after boasting that he would never deny Jesus even if he had to die with him. Certainly if Jesus forgave and restored Peter under those circumstances, he would forgive someone who denied him thinking, even if mistakenly, that this was justified to save others’ lives. Even if you couldn’t claim forgiveness, I believe that Jesus would offer it freely.

Still, I think the best outcome would be not to trust the false promises of your captors, to remain faithful to Christ, and to recognize that this would probably lead them not to kill your fellow hostages but to try to think of some other way to get you to deny Christ. The Bible says, “Do not be immature in your understanding. With respect to wickedness be innocent, but in your understanding be mature.” I think the wisest and most mature course in this case would be not to take the captors’ promise at face value, but to discern the motives and intentions behind it and respond accordingly.

Nebuchadnezzar and Amytis

Q. At what age did King Nebuchadnezzar get married? And at what age was Amytis married?

The Bible gives us no information about the marriage of Nebuchadnezzar and Amytis. Legend says that he built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon for her because she was homesick for the landscape and foliage of her native Media. But this is another case like the one I discuss in my post, “Why are the pyramids of Giza never mentioned in the Bible?” As I say there, “The Bible’s silence about ancient wonders doesn’t indicate that it actually lacks a firsthand perspective on the events it describes. Rather, the Bible wants us to ‘praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven,’ not any earthly ruler, whatever their achievements.” (And whatever Median princess they may have married.)

 

What approach does your study guide take to Daniel and Revelation?

Q. I see you have a book on Daniel/Revelation. My interest lies with how you approach these two books. Are you one or more of the following:
– Preterist, Idealist, Historicist, Futurist
– Postmillennial, Amillennial, Premillennial
– Pre-tribulational, Mid-tribulational, Post-tribulational
Thanks!

Thank you for your interest in the Daniel-Revelation study guide. Let me mention first that the guide is available for free download at this link.

In answer to your question about the interpretive approach, let me quote from the guide itself, which says this on pp. 69–70 about its own approach to Revelation (the same applies for Daniel):

The book of Revelation is interpreted in four major ways. The futurist approach understands it to be a description of the events of the “end times,” at the end of human history. (Works like the novels and movies in the Left Behind series follow this approach.) The historicist view sees the book as a prediction of the whole course of history, from Jesus and the apostles down through the present to the end of the world. The idealist interpretation is that Revelation depicts the struggles and triumphs that followers of Jesus will experience everywhere, but it doesn’t have any particular place or time in view. The preterist approach is to try to understand the book by reference to the time and place it was written in—western Asia Minor towards the close of the first century. This study guide will consistently pursue a preterist interpretation. If this is new for you, and you’re used to hearing the book treated differently, just try to keep an open mind and look for the potential benefits of this approach as you and your group do the sessions together.

As for views about the millennium, when the guide gets to the passage in Revelation that depicts a thousand-year reign of Christ, it doesn’t promote one view over the others; rather, on p. 125 it offers groups the following discussion question. (The three views described are postmillennialism, premillennialism,and amillennialism, respectively.)

The idea of a “millennium” or thousand-year reign of Christ has been an inspiration to followers of Jesus throughout the ages. Many have expected a period of universal peace and justice to arrive on earth through social reform, education, and reconciliation efforts spearheaded by Jesus’ followers. (This expectation fueled crusades for the abolition of slavery, public education, the vote for women, temperance, pacifism, an end to child labor, etc.) Others have held that only the Second Coming of Christ could definitively bring about such a period. And still others have understood the millennium spiritually, as a picture of Christ’s reign in heaven and in the hearts of believers. Which of these views is closest to your understanding? (If you’ve never thought about this before, take some time to decide.) What positive value do you see in the other views? What “action steps” does each of these views call for?

Finally, to answer the third part of your question, on pp. 91–92 the guide says the following about the “tribulation”:

When the fifth seal is opened, those who have given their lives for Jesus appear “under the altar,” since they’ve given their lives as a sacrifice. They’re told to “wait a little longer,” not for the full number of those who will believe, but for the full number of those who will be killed. John is warning that soon anyone who chooses to follow Jesus will need to be prepared to give their life for him: Everyone in the “great multitude” is wearing a white robe, showing that they’re all martyrs, or they’re willing to be. Here Revelation describes the coming period of deadly persecution as “the great tribulation,” meaning a time of severe trial. Followers of Jesus in other times and places have also experienced their own “great tribulations,” when many of them have been killed for their faith. Many interpreters believe that there will be a climactic conflict between good and evil at the end of human history, and at that time, followers of Jesus all over the world will experience the same kind of “great tribulation.”

The guide does not address the issue of a rapture either before, during, or after the tribulation; rather, it offers the following two discussion questions for groups to work through together:

• Why do you think God allows so many of his followers to be killed by those who oppose him? Does God see some positive value in their deaths?

• Would you want to be a follower of Jesus if you knew it could cost you your life? If your answer is yes, why would it be worth it to die for him?

Thank you again for your interest, and I hope you’ll have a look at the guide.

The original cover of the Daniel-Revelation study guide

 

Does “disqualified regarding the faith” mean “unable to be saved”?

Q. I was reading Paul’s description in 2 Timothy of what people will be like “in the last days” and I found it very interesting. In my opinion, it is a perfect description of narcissistic personality disorder. That is rather complex, but the basics are that a person with this disorder is incapable of feeling empathy or thinking they have done something wrong and therefore changing. I’ve gone back and forth on whether it’s possible for them to be saved. (I know only God knows this.) The well-known passage in Romans never says we must repent in order to be saved, it says “believe in your heart and confess with your mouth.” But the 2 Timothy passage describes these people as “having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power” and it calls them “men corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith.” What does “disqualified regarding the faith” mean?

To answer your specific question about the text, the word Paul uses, which the ESV translates as “disqualified,” is adokimos. That’s the negative of dokimos, a term that means “having been put to the test and proved genuine.” Paul applies it, for example, to a man named Apelles in his greetings at the end of Romans; the ESV calls him “approved,” while the NIV says that his “fidelity to Christ has stood the test.” The term dokimos is used in half a dozen other places in the New Testament and the ESV translates it as “approved,” “genuine,” or “stood/met the test.”

I think the most important thing to recognize is that Paul has just told Timothy, in the passage in 2 Timothy right before the one you were reading, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” The ESV has a footnote there explaining that “approved” (dokimos) means “one approved after being tested.” Paul’s use of adokimos in the next passage is a deliberate contrast. His description is actually of false teachers, who are “always learning” but “never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.”

So when Paul calls them adokimos, he means that their teaching has been tested—measured against the truth, which they oppose—and disapproved, so it should be rejected. These men have been “disqualified” in that sense: disqualified as teachers, since what they teach is false. Other translations say that their teaching is “counterfeit,” “worthless,” “to be rejected,” etc. Some older translations call them “reprobate,” but it’s important to realize that this word is being used in its former sense meaning “disapproved,” not in the technical theological sense of “predestined not to be saved.”

So Paul really isn’t saying anything about these men in terms of whether they can or cannot be saved. He’s identifying them as false teachers whose teaching should be rejected. By contrast, he’s encouraging Timothy to strive to be an “approved” teacher who handles the word of truth rightly. (After talking about these “evil people and impostors,” Paul tells Timothy, “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” You yourself are reading and reflecting on the “sacred writings” yourself, and if you continue in this practice, you will become more and more dokimos yourself.)

But now let me briefly address the application question you also raised, whether a person with narcissistic personality disorder can be saved. I have no formal training in psychology, so I cannot address that issue from an informed perspective in that regard. But I would say on Scriptural authority that “God is not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” I would therefore believe that the Holy Spirit would continually use any and all means to help a person recognize their need for Jesus to be their Savior. I’d like to think that even if a person had an exaggerated sense of their own achievements and importance, they still wouldn’t be without a conscience, and they might still recognize when they fall short of doing what they should, even if they characteristically have an unrealistically favorable interpretation of their own actions. But in the end, as you say, only God knows. What I do know is that God would do everything possible to help them be saved.

How could God bless Abraham when he was deceitful?

Q. When Abram (Abraham) went to live in Egypt, he said deceitfully that Sarai (Sarah) was his sister, not his wife. But as a result, he “acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, male and female servants, and camels.” In other words, he got very rich. And he got to take all those things with him when he left after his deception was exposed. It’s almost as if God blessed him for being deceitful. That doesn’t seem right to me. I mean, God doesn’t want us to get money through deception, does He?

When I consider this passage about Abram in Egypt, it strikes me that the original Hebrew readers would have readily understood his time there as an “antetype” or preceding example of their own experience in Egypt. Consider the parallels:

• Abraham goes to Egypt because of a famine, as the Israelites did.

• The Egyptians compel Sarah to serve Pharaoh, as they later compelled the Israelites to serve them. (Sarah was intended as a concubine for Pharaoh, though the passage does not say whether she actually became his concubine before he realized her true identity.)

• God strikes the Egyptians with plagues because of how they are treating Abraham and Sarah, just as he struck them with plagues for enslaving the Israelites. (Some translations say something like “the Lord inflicted serious diseases,” but the statement is more general: “afflicted them with great afflictions.” The same term, “affliction,” literally “a striking,” is used for the tenth plague in Exodus.)

• When Abraham leaves Egypt, he takes away much wealth from there, just as the Israelites “plundered” the Egyptians by asking them “for articles of silver and gold and for clothing” and carrying those away with them.

Indeed, the association between Abram’s time in Egypt and the later experience of the Israelites is made explicit just a little later in Genesis, when God tells Abram, “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions.”

It’s worth noting that this suggests that the “plunder” the Israelites would take from Egypt would be at least partial compensation for the many years they would be forced to work without pay. But what about the riches Abraham acquired? They don’t seem to be anything that the Egyptians “owed” him.

I think the issue really comes down to this: Did the Egyptians only take Sarai as a concubine for Pharaoh because Abram told them she was his sister—they wouldn’t have done so otherwise? Or was Abram correct in believing that the Egyptians were going to take her one way or another, and the only question was whether they would kill him to get her?

If the former is the case, then Abram feared unnecessarily, rather than trusting in the Lord, and he was also unnecessarily deceitful and caused Sarai real or potential dishonor as a result. It would certainly be difficult to understand how God could allow him to acquire such riches under those circumstances.

However, the thematic connections between Abram’s experience in Egypt and the later experience of the Israelites there, along with the explicit connection that is made shortly afterwards, suggest that Abram was  correct to see the Egyptians as people who would oppress foreigners. Indeed, the fact that when “the Egyptians saw that Sarai was a very beautiful woman,” they “took” her as a concubine—there’s nothing about them seeking consent from the “brother,” offering a bride-price, etc., as we typically see elsewhere—indicates that they may well have been as forcefully oppressive as Abram feared.

This brings us to a different question: Was it valid for Abram to use deception to try to ensure that, if Sarai were inevitably going to be taken as a concubine, at least he wouldn’t be killed in the process? In this series of posts, I consider some other biblical characters (such as Rahab and Samuel) who apparently used deception to protect themselves and others from oppressors who held a significant power advantage. It seems that in some cases, God’s purposes may actually have been advanced through this.

It’s a controversial question with no clear answer, but if we assume that people who are at a hopeless power disadvantage can legitimately use deception for protection (for example, by hiding people who would otherwise be captured and mistreated or killed), and if we conclude that Abram was indeed right in believing that the Egyptians would want to take Sarai even if they had to kill him to get her, then his deception is at least understandable. He didn’t deceive the Egyptians in order to get wealth; instead, he got the wealth as the “brother” of a woman who had been “taken into Pharaoh’s palace.” In a sense, accepting these gifts was a means of maintaining the deception, which appears to have been vital to his survival.

However, we also have to consider that Pharaoh responded by returning Sarai to Abram and sending them on their way when the Lord “afflicted the Egyptians with great afflictions.” We do have to wonder what would have happened if Abram, instead of claiming that Sarai was his sister, had cried out to God for protection in this dangerous situation. God could presumably have “afflicted with great afflictions” anyone who tried to harm them, and that would have protected them.

But as so often happens in the Bible, what we are seeing is the action of God in a situation that is already imperfect because of human choices. Still later in Genesis, Abraham and Sarah go to live among the Philistines for a while. Abraham says to himself, “There is surely no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife,” so he once again claims that Sarah is his sister, and she is taken into the palace of King Abimelek. But in this case God speaks to Abimelek in a dream and he responds by returning Sarah immediately. (It turns out that there was “fear of God” in that place.) But even though in this case the passage specifies that Sarah had not yet become Abimelek’s concubine, the king still pays Abraham a large quantity of silver “to cover the offense against you,” that is, as compensation for an offense against Abraham and Sarah’s honor, even though it was unintended and based on a deceptive claim, and no actual harm was done.

We might conclude that if such compensation was appropriate in the case of Abimelek, some compensation would also be appropriate in the case of Pharaoh, particularly if he was more oppressive and less God-fearing. Even though the riches Abram acquired in Egypt were not originally intended as compensation, but rather as gifts, and they were due to Abram’s false pretenses, we could still understand them ultimately as being compensation: Pharaoh says, “Take your wife and go,” and he doesn’t ask for the gifts back.

However, as I said, it’s already an imperfect situation due to human choices by the time we get to sorting out what role God’s actions play in it, so I think there’s good reason to continue pondering what happens in this episode.

 

Why are the pyramids of Giza never mentioned in the Bible?

Q. Why are the pyramids of Giza never mentioned in the Bible?

That’s an interesting question, because those pyramids are apparently visible from Goshen, where the Israelites lived in Egypt. (See the photograph below from the Matson Collection in the U.S. Library of Congress. The photo is entitled, “Egypt. Pyramids. The land of Goshen with pyramids in the distance.”)

But let me try to answer your question. For one thing, the pyramids were constructed well over a thousand years before the time of Moses, so the Egyptians weren’t actively working on them in biblical times. Rather, the book of Exodus tells us that the Egyptians “put slave masters over the Israelites to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh.” So the Bible does refer to major construction projects in Egypt, but it describes the ones that intersect with the story of the covenant people.

However, I think an even more important reason why the Bible doesn’t mention the pyramids is that they were assertions of power and even immortality by the pharaohs. Rather than acknowledge those claims and dispute them, the Bible simply ignores them!

The case is similar with another of the “seven wonders of the ancient world,” the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. While it’s unclear whether they actually existed, tradition says that they were created by King Nebuchadnezzar. While the book of Daniel describes life in Babylon under that king, it never mentions the gardens. If they did exist, the Bible doesn’t give us any evidence for them. It quotes Nebuchadnezzar as speaking of “great Babylon I have built  . . . by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty,” but it doesn’t provide any details that would glorify Nebuchadnezzar rather than the God he ultimately had to admit “is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes.”

So the Bible’s silence about ancient wonders doesn’t indicate that it actually lacks a firsthand perspective on the events it describes. Rather, the Bible wants us to “praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven,” not any earthly ruler, whatever their achievements.